Over the past forty years, increasing attention to gender and sexuality in Brazilian historiography has given us a nuanced understanding of diverse ways in which women and men in Brazil’s past experienced patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression. As gender historians have shed light on how racialized and patriarchal gender and sexual roles have been reconstituted in different historical contexts, empirical studies in the field of social history have focused primarily on the historical agency of women, particularly non-elite women, who lived within or pushed against the confines of prescribed gender roles. Pioneering histories of sexual minorities have accompanied this trajectory since the 1980s, although this subfield has grown more slowly.
A few nodal themes help to explain transformations in gender relations during each of the major periods of Brazil’s social and political history. Under the empire (1822–1889), honor is the entryway for analysis of gender and sexuality. Gendered standards of honor were critical tools used to mark class and racial boundaries, and to traverse them. Historians of the imperial period also stress the centrality of gender to the social, cultural, and economic networks built by members of various occupational, familial, and kinship groups. During the First Republic (1889–1930), the focus shifts to state vigilance and social control, together with debates over modernization of sexual and gender norms, particularly regarding urban space and prostitution. In the Vargas era (1930–1945), patriarchy and racialized sexuality formed the core of intellectual constructions of the nation’s history and identity, at the same time that homosexuality and women’s and worker’s rights generated intense debate. A new emphasis on domesticity emerged in the context of developmentalism in the 1950s, helping to spur a reaction in the form of the counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The dictatorship (1964–1985) went to great lengths to suppress challenges to gender and sexual norms as part of its broader strategy to demobilize society and repress oppositional political movements. These challenges reemerged in the 1970s, when feminists and sexual minorities gained much greater visibility within a new wave of social movements.
The 1988 constitution articulated these movements’ aspirations for social justice and equality through its foundational principal of human dignity. Significant legal changes followed over subsequent decades, including recognition of equal labor rights for domestic and sex workers, affirmative-action policies, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, in 2011. Despite notable setbacks, the momentum toward gender and sexual equality at the start of the 21st century was remarkable. This momentum was halted by the political coup that ousted the first woman president in 2016. The anti-feminist mood that accompanied the impeachment process underscored an overarching theme that runs through the historiography of gender and sexuality in Brazil: the centrality of gender to the major legal and political shifts that mark the nation’s history.